I recently finished reading a fascinating historical novel by David Liss, The Coffee Trader. Now maybe you’re not interested in the formation of the coffee trade in Europe in the 17th Century — though I can’t imagine why not — but you’ll still learn a lot from The Coffee Trader and will enjoy yourself in the process. Though not quite as strong as Liss’s earlier historical novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, this work introduces the reader to the invention of stock-market manipulation four centuries ago. I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is history, but Liss makes the process unfold convincingly before the reader’s eyes. Perhaps most interesting is the cultural setting, combining Christian Netherlanders with a substantial community of Portuguese Jews, who had fled Portugal because of the Inquisition. The inner workings of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam and its members’ interactions with the Gentiles provides most of the tension and drama in The Coffee Trader — not that stock-market manipulations aren’t dramatic, but somehow they don’t have quite the same emotional impact.
It is obvious that Liss has done a great deal of research for this book — perhaps too much for some readers’ taste. But the details of discovering this marvelous new beverage and the financial shenanigans that swirl around it somehow avoid overwhelming the standard apparatus that makes a novel a novel. The three-dimensional characters are well-developed, there are appropriately persuasive conflicts among them, and the sense of place and time can’t be beat. All the main figures are nuanced, and there are no pat answers. Like all good works of fiction, this one makes you think.